For Sam Decker, the epiphany came when he was struggling with a volcano of slime.
More specifically, it was a HotWheels Slimecano racing set, bought on Amazon.com as a Christmas present for his children, and it was a bear to put together on Christmas Eve. The pieces wouldn’t fit properly, and the river of slime refused to ooze. “I tried everything I could, both with and without the directions, and it just wouldn’t work,” Decker says. “Finally I slammed it back in the box and went to Amazon to write a bad review. And I found that there were already 77 negative reviews on that site, all giving it one star out of five. And Amazon was still selling it.”
Shortly after that, Decker became vice president of marketing and products for Bazaarvoice, a Web company that hosts customer rating and review services for e-commerce sites and syndicates them out to search engines, e-mail campaigns and, most recently announced, shopping portals. He says one important aim of Bazaarvoice’s subscription service is to moderate, monitor and tag those consumer-generated reviews as they come in so that retailers can analyze their content and avoid selling products that are so badly flawed that the slime won’t ooze.
“If the retailer’s job is to be a trusted editor of products, that seemed like a big missed opportunity for Amazon,” he says. “One thing we do for our clients is to pay attention to what’s going on out there, with dedicated community analysts and content moderation.”
And the hosted-review business has been good to Bazaarvoice since its launch in February, according to founder and CEO Brett Hurt. The service now has more than 40 clients, including such large merchant sites as Sears.com, Macys.com, PETCO.com and golf supplier Golfsmith. Hurt, formerly the founder and chairman of Web analytics firm Coremetrics, points out that Red Herring named the company as one of the top 100 privately-held tech innovators last May, and PETCO named it their Vendor of the Year in August.
It’s not surprising. The body of research that illustrates the drawing power of online consumer reviews seems to be growing monthly. In April, a study from Forrester Research found that more than 71% of online adults use consumer-generated product ratings and reviews. A JupiterResearch report published in early August found that the number of online buyers who cited customer ratings and reviews as the most useful feature of shopping sites has doubled in the last year. What’s more, Jupiter found, consumers who write product reviews make up only 20% of the online buying population, but they typically account for 32% of online sales.
And in post-sale surveys, PETCO buyers ranked ratings and reviews as the Web function that was most helpful in their purchase decision—outvoting even site search.
“In every category, you have passionate consumers,” Hurt says. “Tapping into them makes the online channel more tactile, so you can convey the touch and feel of products, in a sense, through other people’s experiences.”
Overstock.com found the Bazaarvoice solution so useful that they signed up two months after it opened for business—even though they’d been running their own review platform in-house for four years.
“They were running this function very tactically—as in, ‘Do we approve or reject this review?’” Hurt says. “They weren’t doing actual data analysis on them. We tag each review for content as it comes in, to learn how to merchandise and market more effectively.” Overstock.com was also devoting the time of six employees to moderating the reviews, so the prospect of handing off those duties was even more appealing.
Now that the company has proven its worth on-site, Decker says, Bazaarvoice is aiming to moving that review and ratings content onto other platforms. Early last month, the company officially launched SearchVoice, which creates landing pages optimized for organic search that include both top-rated product offerings and consumer review content, hosted and branded on the client’s domain.
Hosted by Bazaarvoice, the landing/review pages are optimized for natural search and include links to the product detail and shopping pages on the client’s Web site. Because they’re fresh, authentic content, light on design coding and highly relevant to the product, they get a lot of credibility from the engines and can give a boost to the Web site’s organic ranking.
“We check Google periodically on the term ‘Microsoft Xbox 360 Platinum’ for the product page [hosted by Bazaarvoice for CompUSA],” Decker says. “Most of the time, it comes up in the top three out of three million results.”
Just as importantly, by letting prospects hear the voices of real customers at the point at which they enter the site, the pages can increase both conversion rates and average spending, Decker says. CompUSA found that the Bazaarvoice landing pages deployed on search indexes generated 92% more site visits prior to purchase. It also determined that visitors coming in through those pages converted 60% more often than customers coming in from the retailer’s standard Google landing pages, and spent 50% more per order.
Bazaarvoice offers other enhancements that move customer reviews onto new platforms. Home gardening merchant Burpee saw a 43% increase in visits to Burpee.com from its RSS feed once it started including customer reviews of featured items in its daily feed content; thus was FeedVoice born. Both PETCO and Golfsmith began testing ratings and reviews for leading products in their e-mail campaigns. Golfsmith saw 55% higher conversions and revenue per e-mail, according to Decker, while PETCO saw 500% greater click-through from e-mail.
The newest cross-platform effort, unveiled two weeks ago, is SyndicateVoice, designed to bring reviews and consumer-generated content to the vertical sites and comparison shopping engines that many prospects visit before going to a specific online retailer’s Web pages.
SyndicateVoice will take the relevant product reviews from clients’ Web sites and normalize them into feeds that are then pushed to the portal partners. In most cases, portals and shopping engines produce a search results page that includes tabs for merchant listings and for reviews: the syndicated Bazaarvoice content will appear behind the “reviews” tab.
The syndicated content will include client branding, any ratings that customers may have generated on the product, a 250-word clip of the leading review, and a live link back to the client’s Web site where the visitor can read the full review.
Bazaarvoice will make the program free to portals and will earn its money from charging the client on a pay-for-performance basis when visitors click through to their Web pages.
Clients can also opt for inbound syndication that brings relevant product reviews from the portals into their Web sites. For smaller online merchants who want to build review functions into their Web sites but who haven’t already got a backlist of content, inbound syndication could provide a valuable jump start.
Retailers can choose to participate in the SyndicateVoice program or not, and those who choose to can select the portals in the SyndicateVoice Network they want to appear on. Right now, that choice is limited to MSN, PriceRunner and Smarter.com, but Hurt says more participants will be signed.
The value proposition here is to extend the sales influence of the review content merchants generate out to places on the Web they may not now be reaching. Portals and shopping engines make up a large portion of Internet traffic, Decker says—perhaps as much as 70%. “No one retailer is getting that amount of traffic share,” he says. “So we’re taking all this authentic content and bringing it into these sites, giving retailers access to visitors they might not reach on their own. They have this asset, this working capital of customer word of mouth, and they can now leverage that capital and put it to work beyond their site.”
Bazaarvoice’s future might hold new initiatives to bring that consumer-generated capital into other areas, such as CRM, chat services and even catalogs. “Our clients are seeing these new uses for reviews as a huge strategic advantage,” Decker says. “Brett says that in seven years at Coremetrics, he never got through to chief marketing officers as easily as he does now with Bazaarvoice.”